Back to Matilija, 2013-03-17: the Murietta Five

I arrived in California late Friday night, March 16. This was not, as a primary focus, a trip designed to realize my Los Padres Expatriate goals. But I was not adverse to making that part of the function of the visit should time permit. Saturday, March 17, was fully scheduled but Sunday, barring unforeseen complications, I intended to honor an open invitation from the author of Hiking and Backpacking Santa Barbara and Ventura to participate in an outing with a group of Los Padres luminaries.

I departed from an environment of sub-freezing temperatures, snow and general dampness into very dry, reasonably warm Southern California conditions. What emerged from this transition, amplified somewhat by sleep deprivation, was a feeling of mild hypotensive light-headedness and other, even less dignified, physical phenomenology. I figured, in terms of any back country exertion, I would have to endeavor to persevere while waiting to acclimatize. Thus, I met Craig at the junction of Highways 150 and 33: destination, the Matilija trailhead. It was 4:30 in the morning and I was not entirely coherent. But I think I was game (I won’t say up to the challenge, however). The plan was to head beyond Murietta camp, drop into the drainage and head roughly south to intersect the old Ocean View trail on the way toward White Ledge Peak, an ascent of which was documented recently in an outstanding Stillman blog entry.

I have a very long history with Matilija. I recall camping by the lake in 1962 in very hot weather and exploring for lizards and other natural wonders. I visited a family friend in the canyon who kept a very large aviary throughout the mid-1960s and used those visits as an opportunity poke around the Upper North Fork Matilija trail. Shortly after the tragically notable floods of January, 1969 I traveled into the canyon as a guest of the individual who was responsible for supervising the rebuilding of the Matilija road. I can still picture very clearly the devastation caused by the overflowing creeks that feed Matilija Lake. I spent many hours on the Middle Fork and Upper North Fork routes through the early to mid 1970s. I do not have any pictures of the area from the 1960s but I offer below three shots from the 1970s. The two shots from 1978 were taken during a time of heavy rain and flooding in the winter of 1978. In fact, the rainfall in 1978 exceeded that of 1969, 47.30 in to 45.73 inches; however, the 14.50 inches of rain recorded in March, the wettest month of 1978, did not approach the 25.76 inches of rain that fell in the disastrous month of January, 1969.

Upper North Fork Matilija Creek, 1974

Upper North Fork Matilija Creek, 1974

North Fork Matilija Creek, 1978

North Fork Matilija Creek near flood stage, 1978

North Fork Matilija Creek, 1978

North Fork Matilija Creek near flood stage, 1978

We arrived at the Matilija trail had before 5:00 in the morning and were joined by Derek of the 100 Peaks blog and she who will now be named Lego-lass (a PCT through-hike veteran). Jonny, the RSO, was missing when we started down the closed portion of the Matiljja road with headlamp illumination. Craig alerted us to listen for a moose call that would indicate the approach of the RSO. I did not pay much attention to that admonition and simply assumed Jon would not be with us that day. When we passed the junction with the Upper North Fork trail it occurred to me that I had not been this way since 1985. While turning this disturbing fact over in my mind, we merged onto the Murietta trail in the dark. We eased through Murietta camp trying not to disturb sleeping campers. After a creek crossing marked by reflective signage, but still a challenge to discern in the darkness, as we approached our drainage drop-in point, a clear moose call rang out from the darkness. The RSO was approaching via the creek bed. Soon, the light of a headlamp become evident and, after several answering calls from Craig, the RSO appeared among us. I was most impressed by his effort to chase us down in the dark. And I am always pleased to see the RSO in any circumstances.

The drop in point to the creek along the Murietta trail..

The drop in point to the creek along the Murietta trail, March 17, 2013.

Craig has told the tale of this Murietta Mosey with far more eloquence than I can muster. But I will offer a few observations. I was surprised at the amount of water in the creek as the route became an exercise in rock hopping. This is not my strong suit; after foot and Achilles tendon repair my always marginal jump and balance skills are further diminished. While I could make forward progress effectively using a grasp, hand-plant, push, crouch and foot-reach strategy I was most certainly not moving with the upright, balletic precision of Lego-lass. It was impressive to watch as she disappeared up the creek. The others also seemed to be keeping their socks dry while I kept immersing my left foot and leg up to the knee.

The Murietta drainage through an alder screen

The Murietta drainage through an alder screen, March 17, 2013.

When Craig called a halt to the proceedings and turned us back toward the trail head, I was pleased to comply. Although I wasn’t tired, my head was still spinning from travel, lack of sleep and lack of acclimatization to the warm, dry conditions. And, quite frankly, this only exacerbated the possibility that I was going to go head first into the water while clumsily navigating the route. Perhaps I would have been less of a hazard with a bit of time to equilibrate and some practice. I would like to think so.

It was an honor to be able to spend a few hours with Craig, Derek, the RSO and Lego-lass in my old Matilija haunt as part of the Murietta Five. Would that I had more time to spend with such folks in the Los Padres. The outstanding stout provided by Lego-lass made for a perfect toast when we regained the trail head. That was remarkably good beer. And life is far, far too short to drink mediocre beer. And, as a fine denouement, Craig and I stopped at Full of Beans and enjoyed iced coffee drinks while relaxing in the sun on the patio. I hadn’t seen unfiltered sunlight or been in conditions where iced coffee would be appropriate in some time.

The Murietta Five: Expat, Craig, Derek, Lego-lass, RSO

The Murietta Five: Expat, Craig, Derek, Lego-lass, RSO, March 17, 2013.

7 thoughts on “Back to Matilija, 2013-03-17: the Murietta Five

  1. I am gratified to hear that I’m not alone in diminished stream-crossing ability. Might I add another suggested technique (not pretty, but effective)? Crawling on hands and knees across a sturdy log with a rushing stream beneath can also work. (I’ve done that a few times:) I am in awe of Lego-lass and anyone else who can charge across water crossings with skill and ease, and the apparent strength of will. Thanks for sharing your adventure, and also for the memories of Matilija as it was.

    • Marsha – I am all too familiar with the “crawl across the log” method, having employed it many times myself. Better than doing more damage and suffering a possible nosedive in the water, which would be an even greater insult to dignity than log-crawling.

    • Jack – There was a very nice campground by Matilija Lake. It was a county facility. In fact, it is very well described by commenter Kenny Johnson in this comment thread. He remembers it exactly as I do. It was a great place for a kid to explore but I do not remember when it was closed. I have someone checking who will likely have connections that can fill in the administrative details.

  2. (Eldon, Sorry if this is a little long winded; but you triggered some fun memories)
    I also have great memories of Matillija Canyon pre 1969 flood days; I remember the lake was developed with powerboat & sailboat rentals, docks; snack-bar, bait & tackle convenience/campground store, post cards, etc… The canyon had many cabins and weekend homes; large trees, woods, swimming holes, Tarzan ropes…… In my memory, Matillija canyon was one of many great family destinations to camp or picnic in the 60’s. In 1967 at the end of Matillija road; several Boy Scout troops went in and planted many pine trees in the flood plain…..I was one of the Scouts. A year later our troop hiked to Matillija camp when there was a dirt road to the camp and beyond. (We Scouts helped unstick a Ranger’s pick-up that couldn’t get traction in the dust.) It’s a nice camp with a deep cold swimming hole. …… Then After the 1969 floods; I couldn’t belief how devastated the entire canyon was. All the trees, homes and swimming holes were gone, and the lake was filled in with debris. I seriously thought it would take a lifetime for the canyon to recover. It had become a Moon-scape in comparison to it’s former glory.
    That January 1969 Saturday night, when it started raining hard; I was camping in Santa Paula Canyon at Big Cone;…. the Saturday hike in was hot & dusty; we tiptoed across the stagnant Santa Paula creek as we worked our way up the road to the camp. When we got to Big Cone, a Ranger was emptying trash cans into his pick-up…that was probably the last vehicle that was ever there since 1969. That afternoon it started drizzling; then raining, and more rain. For Boy scouts this was sorta fun; running around on that wet dome of rock; exploring everywhere with our leaky ponchos; trying to keep smoky fires going. Trying to sleep in the wet, wet, wet, until some of the tents had 10″-12″ of water in them; moving to dry tents, while it continued to rain. Fast forward to 1 A.M.; the ‘adults’ decided to hike everyone out, except for 4 dry scouts; they left us behind in the pouring rain. The 4 of us scouts waited until mid morning to hike out;… down the mountain we came, until we stared befuddled at the raging, debris filled, muddy Santa Paula creek. Sooo….We go back to camp; got a fire going, and cooked some breakfast, bacon & pan-cakes with jam; while enjoying the pitter-patter of never ending California rain. Wondering in our “Be-Prepared” 12 year old brains what to do next. Long story short; some soaked ‘adults’ showed up; (encouraged by some livid parents). We left everything behind; and with some ropes tied to us scouts & adults; one by one we got pulled through the Santa Paula Rapids. Squished our way home; and the rain kept falling for days….(the floods of 69) Two weeks later we went back to retrieve our moldy gear; it took hours and hours to get through the devastation to Big Cone. I couldn’t believe how devastated the landscape had become; entire orange groves washed away; mountain side collapsed…….but hey; it makes for great memories, and to this day I have a large fossil clam I found on the way out! Happy trails……

    • Kenny – Thanks very much for this comment. This is an outstanding tale of the 1969 deluge and thank goodness it is a non-tragic adventure story. I am honored to have it here in the comments of this blog. My memories of the Matilija campground are identical to yours. I was there many times in the early 1960s. There was a caretaker who lived in a house near the lake; that building was washed away in the 1969 flood. When I visited the lake as the road was being rebuilt after the events of January, 1969 the scene was indeed a moon-scape. The water level in the lake was actually very low when I got there and there was a huge log and debris jam where the creek flowed in. There was also a school of hungry largemouth bass populating the jam and no one else fishing. Over the next few weeks the water level came up and the log and debris field dissipated. I had camped along the Upper North Fork a few weeks before the rain started and going back into Matilija canyon afterward was a shock.

      Thanks again for the comment. It is a few years, is it not, since the old south Oxnard neighborhood?

    • Good stuff EMW and Kenny. Love hearing the old accounts of storms and happy you made it out safely. Now if we could just get half that amount of rain this year…………

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *