Sisar Canyon, November 18, 2011: Of Snake, Red-tailed Hawks, Marine Layers, Tamales and the Shadow World

(and anything else that comes to mind in no particular order)

The second time I ran into him was at a camping and backpacking gear show that was held, as I recall, on the grounds of a Ventura County junior high school. There were displays of tent construction using 2 mil plastic as the shelter material. One tent was configured in such a way as to allow it to close up against wet weather; I thought it looked like a great idea and better than rigging the military surplus coated cotton canvas tarps I used for shelter. Snake (the only name I knew for him at that time) looked agitated by the thing and he called over the person managing the display. I remember what came next very clearly: “Do you realize that closed down like this under plastic condensation will form and then if it gets below freezing the edges of the tent will freeze to the ground and the flaps will freeze shut and everyone inside will suffocate? It would be like putting a plastic bag over your head and sealing it shut.” I was impressed; this guy was not only observant but could also process details into an important conclusion. I immediately thought of the Sherlock Holmes stories I avidly consumed.

Snake, 1974

Snake, 1974

We talked for a while about Sespe Hot Springs and Alder and Agua Blanca Creeks. Before he headed off he said “be at the McDonald’s parking lot 6:00 AM Saturday if you want to go backpacking in the Los Padres. There is room for one more guy.” There was only one McDonald’s in town and I could walk to it from where I lived. Hamburgers were fifteen cents and they did not serve breakfast. I asked where we would be going. He replied, “Does it matter?” I showed up as instructed and heaved my Camp Trails Cruiser frame fitted with a pack bag the origin of which I do not remember into the back of an early 1960s Willys CJ5 (I did not have enough money to buy the Cruiser frame, the padded hip belt and the Camp Trails Camper pack bag so I had to forgo the Camper pack bag). The two vehicle caravan included a pickup truck but I don’t remember the model. Off we went, ultimately following the Sespe Road to Sycamore car camp.

Camp Trails Cruiser frame, unknown packbag, Jackson Flats, 1969

Camp Trails Cruiser frame, unknown packbag, Jackson camp, 1969

Sespe road sign near Lion Camp, a long time ago

Sespe road sign near Lion Camp, a long time ago

By the time we arrived at Sycamore I learned the program was to take the Red Reef trail to Ladybug camp then take the trail over the ridge to Last Chance with a side trip up Hines Peak. The last day would be a hike from Last Chance to Ferndale. That plan went to hell when a heavy marine layer overtook us at Ladybug. It started to rain late that night but Snake was an expert tarp rigger so we stayed dry. I had to pitch my tarps multiple times before they met Snake’s exacting standards. But let me repeat: we stayed dry. The rain persisted the next day; ultimately we bailed out via Sisar Canyon to Highway 150 and somehow made a call for a ride. That was the first time I hiked the Red Reef trail and Sisar Canyon road. I have no recollection of how the vehicles up the Sespe road were retrieved; I assume there was some sort of plan in place.

Red Reef trail (21W08) junction with Sespe road

Red Reef trail (21W08) junction with Sespe road, a long time ago

Snake had self-declared metaphysical capabilities but I was never sure if he was serious or just amused himself by messing with us. He assigned each of us an animal according to some special revelation he received from his shadow world. According to Snake, any time someone saw his or her personal creature, that person would have a good day. For some reason, I was a Red-tailed hawk. That led to an interaction I recall in exact detail. He clearly sensed my skepticism about the animal thing and asked me pointedly if I would recognize a Red-tailed hawk if I saw one. I replied that I couldn’t tell one hawk from another and that I didn’t believe him anyway. I am not sure to what extent the exasperation he expressed to this was feigned, although I suspect the exasperation about the hawk recognition part was real. Snake knew all the creatures, trees and plants in the forest; he was a living dichotomous key, the unknown Linnaeus of the Los Padres. He said, “You can’t tell one hawk from another; can you at least tell a hawk from an owl or an eagle?” I indicated I could do that. “Any hawk will do, then” he replied. Evidently there was some flexibility in the shadow world of Snake.

It was early spring of 1990, many years after the events described above. I was living in west Los Angeles but preparing to leave California. A colleague with whom I shared an office on the fourth floor of the UCLA Health Sciences Center called me to the office phone. That was curious to me as very few people had that number. It was Snake, who I had not seen in quite a few years, sometime before 1980. “I’m in town, eh, I got this number from your Dad.” I was somewhat stunned; Snake was a mentor but he was about fifteen years older and I would not have imagined he would seek me out. I don’t remember most of the conversation but I did indicate that I was doing a farewell tour of hikes before I left the state and that I would be heading up Sisar Canyon that Saturday.

I arrived at the locked gate at the Sisar Canyon trail head and parked my Mitsubishi Mighty Max next to a beautifully maintained, old step-side pickup truck. Snake had a Coleman stove running on the bed of the pickup. “My wife remembered how much you liked these tamales so she made some. They’re warm.” Tamales for breakfast; the day was off to a good start. We hiked up Sisar Canyon road and picked up the Red Reef trail through White Ledge camp up to the Nordhoff fire road.

Mighty Max in snow, Sierra Nevada, 1988

Mighty Max in snow, Sierra Nevada, 1988

Mostly we talked about back country friends from the 1970s. We ended up by the trail sign for Ladybug camp on the shoulder of Hines Peak. Snake brought up the Red-tailed hawk conversation we had at Ladybug years before. I told him I still couldn’t tell one hawk from another. He asked if I had retained the ability to distinguish among a hawk, an eagle and an owl. I was amazed he remembered that exchange. “You never believed any of that stuff I told you anyway, did you?” he asked. I said, “No I didn’t, not the alternative reality stuff, although anything you said about the physical reality of the back country I took as authoritative.” “You should look inside yourself more and you should look beyond the obvious around you to see what is there; you always had that problem,” Snake said. I replied, “You should have written all that stuff down; you would have sold more books than Carlos Castaneda.” Snake laughed and we left it there. I was hardly a kid anymore by 1990 yet the context between Snake and I had not changed; I was still the young, impatient skeptic and he was the wise, contemplative elder.

Lady Bug sign on the shoulder of Hines Peak, late 1970s

Lady Bug sign on the shoulder of Hines Peak, late 1970s

Lady Bug sign on the shoulder of Hines Peak, late 1985

Lady Bug sign on the shoulder of Hines Peak; overnight trip to Ladybug camp, 1985

We conversed by the vehicles a while before I headed back to LA and he headed back to wherever he was staying in Ojai while he was in town. “So, you’re leaving the area?” he asked. I replied that I was. He asked, “Are you driving your life or are circumstances driving.” “Circumstances are driving,” I conceded. “It’s OK as long as you know” was his judgement. Finally this: “Did you hear what happened to the Flash?” I guessed what was coming next. “OD up north; he’s gone. I talked to his mom. Sad, very sad.” I had heard this before, too often in my estimation. And I heard it again no less than three weeks before I sit here now writing this piece. I had hoped that part of my life was in the past but I guess not.

November 18, 2011 I found myself in a rented Jeep Liberty driving up Sisar Canyon Road to the trail head. I had not been there since that day in 1990 when I hiked with Snake; I have not seen or heard from him since that day. I haven’t been the length of the Red Reef trail since Jon B. and I backpacked from Sisar Canyon in April, 1983. This was the first hike I did with Jon and was the start of a very productive nine year series of adventures.

Jon, Trail 21W08 and fire road junction, 1983

Jon, trail 21W08 and fire road junction, 1983

This day I planned to hike up to the Nordhoff fire road and onto Topatopa Bluff via the Don Borad route that branches from the fire road. That route did not exist (at least not in the form of an established footbed) when I was hiking here regularly; I had discovered its existence reading Los Padres-centric blogs. I had seen the high point of the route referred to as Topatopa Peak which confused me. Was someone hiking to the long-closed Topatopa Peak fire tower site? Upon detailed reading of the blog entries it was clear the route described most certainly did not end on Topatopa Peak. A complete explanation was provided by the author of the newly released master work “Hiking and Backpacking Santa Barbara and Ventura” on his equally outstanding blog

As I hiked up the Sisar Canyon fire road it soon became clear I was being pursued by a marine layer. Well, it was not the first (or second or third) time that had happened to me along this route. And there was the potential for dramatic vistas for the photographic portion of the hike; there was also the potential for zero visibility and drizzle, if not outright rain, but those are the vagaries of hiking. And always worth the risk.

Marine layer overtaking Sisar Canyon

Marine layer overtaking Sisar Canyon, 2011

A car came down the road as I approached Howell place. In a Twilight Zone moment it looked like the same car driven by the same person I used to see on this road in the 1980s. My imagination, I am sure.

I arrived at the hairpin turn where the trail leaves the road to go to White Ledge camp and immediately tilted into cognitive dissonance.The old trail sign was gone and one of those uninspiring stakes with the word “Trail” and an arrow inscribed had replaced it. I was very fond of that sign.

Signage, 1983 and 2011

Signage, 1983 and 2011, junction trail 21W08, Sisar Canyon road


The trail above White Ledge was familiar with one change. The tall brush flanking the foot bed used to impinge aggressively on either side such that one was essentially squeezing through while the branches tried to grab the pack frame or eat a sleeping pad strapped on horizontally. The corridor was comfortably wide now with signs of profound recent pruning of the brush.

I completed the familiar climb from White Ledge camp and reached the junction with the fire road in reasonably short order. The sign at the trail / fire road junction was the same with some obvious signs of wear and tear. The trail had been re-routed somewhat at the junction or the sign moved a bit or both.

Junction, trail from White Ledge camp with the Nordhoff Fire Road

Junction, trail from White Ledge camp with the Nordhoff fire road, looking north

Junction, trail from White Ledge camp with the Nordhoff Fire Road

Junction, trail from White Ledge camp with the Nordhoff fire road, looking south

Marine layer, 21W08 and Nordhoff fire road junction, 1983

Marine layer, 21W08 and Nordhoff fire road junction, 1983

Marine layer closing in near the junction of 21W08 with the Nordhoff fire road, 2011

Marine layer, 21W08 and Nordhoff fire road junction, 2011

I proceeded a short distance along the road east and arrived at Elder camp which sits in a wide turnout. This was new to me and seemed on first consideration an odd place for a camp. But I think, upon further reflection, I get it as a remote, isolated car camp .

East of the junction 21W08 and Nordhoff road, 1986

East of the junction 21W08 and Nordhoff road, 1986

Elder camp, Nordhoff fire road, 2011

Elder camp, Nordhoff fire road, 2011

Lion Canyon looking north from Elder camp, 2011

Lion Canyon, Pine Mountain panorama looking north from Elder camp, 2011. Hip high in Manzanita.

Pine Mountain from Red Reef trail, 1983

Pine Mountain from Red Reef trail, 1983

Antennas, 1985

Antennas, 1985

Microwave antennas, 2011

Antennas; the communication mission persists, 2011

The Don Borad route off the fire road was signed, to my surprise,  “Last Chance Trail.” To me the Last Chance trail was the route off the west shoulder of Hines Peak. It occurred to me that if this trail did go to Last Chance it would curve through or near the site of the old Topatopa Lodge camp. Once again, I required enlightenment from the proprietor of The route lateral to Hines Peak down to Last Chance camp that I knew in years past is properly termed the “Last Chance connector” (via personal communication). The late Don Borad had led the construction of the trail I was hiking this day onto the Topatopa bluff and it had, at least informally, been named in his honor. Very well deserved I would say given what I know of his history of Los Padres advocacy; the work done on this trail was outstanding.

Don Borad Memorial Trail start from Nordhoff Fire Road

Don Borad Memorial Trail start from Nordhoff fire road, 2011

Nearing the crest on Topatopa Bluff, Don Borad trail

Nearing the crest on Topatopa Bluff, Don Borad trail

I hiked quickly up to the rock bench at the high point of the trail on Topatopa Bluff. I had the perfect marine layer: it lay below a dramatic mountain vista and enhanced rather than obscured the view. I also had high winds.

Marine layer from crest, Don Borad trail, 2011

Marine layer from crest, Don Borad trail, 2011

Don Borad bench and wind, Topatopa bluff, 2011

Don Borad bench and wind, Topatopa Bluff, 2011

The conditions for panorama photograpry were difficult. I used every trick I know to steady my tripod, panoramic head and camera assembly and hoped I could get a vibration-blur free series of frames to stitch a panorama. The results exceeded my expections. I attribute that to a quality Italian made tripod from Gitzo.

Panorama from Topatopa Bluff, crest, Don Borad trai, 2011

Panorama from Topatopa Bluff, crest, Don Borad trail, 2011

After the frames were shot I removed a layer of fleece and headed back down. About halfway down to the road along the Don Borad route I crossed paths with two young women carrying impressively large backpacks. They asked me if this route went to their destination, Last Chance Camp and told me they were doing something (I didn’t catch what) for the Forest Service. They appeared to have been dropped off by a large SUV I could see on the fire road below. I found myself expounding on my history in the area and the changes I had seen. About the time I mentioned Topatopa Lodge camp I noticed their eyes were glazing over. “Dude,” my inner voice warned me, “consider what you are doing here.” I stopped myself short, wondered yet again why my inner voice always calls me “dude,” and told them I realized they were too busy to listen to my ramblings and admitted I did not know if this trail would take them all the way to Last Chance Camp with the kind of clear footbed upon which we were now standing. I couldn’t help but mention that their water situation should be carefully considered; I guess my paternal instincts are stronger than I realized.  I wished them luck; I hope they made it wherever they needed to go and fullfilled whatever mission they had undertaken.

White SUV, Nordhoff Fire Road, 2011

White SUV, far up the Nordhoff fire road, mid-picture, from Don Board trail, 2011

The short conversation on the trail did cause me to think about what I knew about this area where I had hiked so often. I realized that the larger part of my impressions where based on the 1969 Los Padres National Forest Visitor’s map. I had no copies of this map left, only the 1984 version. I was fortunate to receive a heads up about the availability of the 1969 and 1974 maps on Ebay (thanks CRC) and I aggressively pursued and obtained them. Below is a fragment of the 1969 map covering the area in this posting. There is much that is not clear to me. Perhaps the Dungeons of Maptitude will come to the rescue and provide clarity at some point. I should point out as I have elsewhere in this Web log that the rediscovery of Topatopa Lodge was one of the bellwether events that drove my “Los Padres Expatriate” idea to implementation after years of unrealized good intentions.

1969 Los Padres Forest Service Visitor's Map

1969 Los Padres Forest Service Visitor’s Map. I used this map throughout the 1970s until 1984. I do not remember 21W09 from 21W08 to Topatopa Lodge but it seems to correspond to the route from 21W08 across the Topatopa bluff that the Don Borad route follows. 21W20, properly called the Last Chance connector, I do remember; I hiked it in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Topatopa peak is in the northeast corner of this map fragment.

Los Padres National Forest Visitor's Map, 1984

Los Padres National Forest Visitor’s Map, 1984. Topatopa Lodge, Last Chance camp and associated trails are gone. Jackson camp, which was easily reachable at this time, is also missing. The ice can stoves at Topatopa Lodge could be seen from the trail west of Hines Peak if you knew where to look. This is a map that I carried hiking many times and its condition is reflective of that fact.

The hike from the water tower just short of the Sisar Canyon trail head proper to the high point on the Don Borad trail according to my GPS is 7.7 miles and gains 4800 feet of elevation. This qualifies as a significant constitutional. I parked at that spot as I had read the road beyond was in very poor shape. It was, in fact, no worse than I remember it and would have been easy to drive to the gate. The grade over which the 4800 feet of climbing is distributed is generally steady but is steep enough in places to raise a dissociative state of meditative hiking to a slightly higher level of awareness. In fact, I did not consider the hike particularly difficult, just a steady expenditure of wattage. In the 1980s I remember often speed hiking from the trail head through White Ledge to the fire road as a training routine. But that was not my method this day.

I did not see a Red-tailed hawk on November 18, 2011. I did not see a hawk at all. I still can’t tell one hawk from another. But I had a very good day.

8 thoughts on “Sisar Canyon, November 18, 2011: Of Snake, Red-tailed Hawks, Marine Layers, Tamales and the Shadow World

  1. Another fine post, Expat. The cartographic legacy of the Los Padres visitor maps (I believe there have been 21 printed thus far) and their numerous omissions and intricacies could fill volumes.

    Was Snake ever one to sign a trail register? I would be interesting to determine who holds the “back editions” of Hines, Bluff, or any of his old haunts and cast some additional light on that shadow world.

  2. Thanks for the great story ExPat. I enjoyed it! I’ve worked on the Borad trail a few times over the years with the FS. Its a bit confusing in those parts with regards to trail names if you ask me. Until next time……….

    • The trip to the crest of the Don Borad trail on the Topatopa ridge from the Sisar Canyon trail head is 7.7 miles and 4800 feet of elevation gain. This is not a trivial hike but absolutely something a reasonably fit hiker can do in a day (as I did in this piece). Of course, the 7.7 miles back is all downhill, a bit of a foot pounder, but the route (trail and fire road) is well graded.

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